Richard Bresnahan – Body of Clay Soul of Fire

Richard Bresnahan book

Richard Bresnahan.  O.k. wow.  I had never heard of him until I stumbled upon a book in the SF library about him and his life as a potter.  When I picked up the book I briefly scanned the photos of pots as I usually do to decide if it was something I wanted to bother with and saw tons of amazing pots that appeared to be wood fired.  I left immediately with an armload of books including this one called Body of Clay Soul of Fire by Matthew Welch.
In the 70’s, Richard Bresnahan apprenticed with Nakazato Takashi in Japan on the island of Kyushu.  There he learned to make pots on a Karatsu-style kick wheel, build kilns and fire them, and how to use local materials.  He now has a pottery at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota where he fires a huge wood kiln.  He uses local clay and local materials for his glazes and has found ways to take what others are throwing away and turn it into something beautiful.  This book touched a chord with me and my desire to study with a master potter, fire with wood, and use ash glazes is even stronger now.
Just looking at the photos of all these pots is inspiring.  Reading the book is even more so.  There is a video I found as well. The Richard Bresnahan story is full of lessons for life.  He boldly went after what he wanted and the community of friends, teachers, neighbors, and family all supported him.  His passion is undeniable and people come from all over the place when it’s time to fire that big kiln.
Read this book and be inspired.  I’m reading it now for the 3rd time.

Carbon Nation and my kiln

Just watched an eye opening documentary film called Carbon Nation on Netflix and it got me thinking about firing the kiln for my pottery.  What is the cost in money as well as impact on our atmosphere?  What are the best choices for reducing CO2 emissions?  Is it using an electric kiln?  Sure if the source is wind generated electricity or from solar but not if that electricity was created by burning coal in a huge power plant?  Coal is by far the dirtiest burning fossil fuel.  So what is the sustainable thing to do when designing a kiln and deciding what the heat source will be?

What about natural gas?  It comes to the house already.  It’s convenient and relatively inexpensive. I can have it run out to the kiln pretty easily and it is cleaner burning but there are issues with how it is collected and the damage that process does to our environment.  I would also have the cost of special burners which are a sizable chunk of change.

What about propane?  It is widely used around the globe for heating and cooking.  Simon Leach and others use it for their kilns successfully.  I could use inexpensive weed burners which are only $20 each from Harbor Freight.

What about an oil drip system using reclaimed vegetable oil from restaurants?  Biofuels are all the rage now.  Would that work?

What about an oil drip system using waste oil from garages?  Too toxic to deal with and still uses petroleum oil which keeps it in the system and burning it is a dirty burn.  Giving the waste oil an easy place to go seems like it would encourage more use of it.  What we really need to do is have electric cars that plug in and get our electricity by wind and solar.

What about wood?  Burning wood releases CO2 but how much?  If I am using wood that is thrown away by someone else it’s being reclaimed and that’s a good thing keeping it from the landfills.  And maybe they would give it to me free for taking it off their hands.  Win win.  Nothing beats the look and feel of wood fired pots.

What if I used natural gas and wood?  The gas could be the main heat source and wood for the effects.  Less wood means less ash?  Does it mean less CO2?  And will the pots be as beautiful as they would be from an all wood firing?

Is methane an option?  People have been collecting their own on small scale farms.  Manure from just a few animals creates enough methane for heating and cooking for a family of 5.  That is if you can get past the idea of using crap gas.  How much is needed for a cone 10 firing?  What kind of burners work with methane?  How large must the kiln be to support this family and a pottery?  How often must it be fired to have enough pots to sell?

Maybe landfill gas could work.  It sounds complicated in terms of delivery and burner type etc. but may be worth checking out since landfills are everywhere there are humans.

What about a solar kiln?  Remember the magnifying glass from childhood held over the leaves until they ignited?  On a larger scale would this work for a kiln somehow?  I suppose you could have solar panels collect energy and run an electric kiln for bisque firing.  Some potters single fire their pots thereby reducing the need for a bisque firing.  It seems like that would mean less CO2 but wood firings are usually a lot longer so there may be no significant savings.

And what about all that heat that comes out of the chimney?  There must be a way of harnessing it to create electricity for the pottery or storing it, or even selling it back to the electric company.  In colder climates duct work could be set up to collect heat from around the chimney.  In simple terms, the heat could boil water and the steam could rise up to turn something and that could produce electricity.  If the kiln was fired once per month could it produce enough energy for the month?  Or could it produce enough to pay for the firing, creating a break even and thereby increasing the profits for the pottery?

Currently the cost of firing is my largest expense.  My clay was given to me by John from The Clay Studio in San Francisco, CA when they went out of business as well as twenty 5-gallon buckets of glaze that work with their clay.  That’s about 3,000 pounds of clay and 100 gallons of glaze!  Thanks John!  My main kick wheel was $40 off craigslist, the other kick wheel was free.  The broken electric kiln I fixed up and intend to convert to propane gas was free from Clay People in Richmond, CA. I make some of my own tools and the rest were given to me.  Essentially the largest cost for me has been time.  It has taken a lot of time to gather all these things together so I could make pots. In fact their was six months without making pots at all, working and gathering and searching and it felt like I was sick.  I was aching to get back to clay.  If I had the money I probably would have gone to The Potters Studio in Berkeley, CA and become a member.  The community is supportive and I learned from being around other potters.  It would have been too easy to just throw and trim and stick it on the shelf for someone else to bisque, then use the studio glazes (some of which I love) and put it on a shelf again for the big gas kiln which someone else would fire.  In the long run it is better for my development to do it all on my own and learn each aspect as I do it.  Even though I watched a lot of videos and took a couple classes, the real learning was when I got my hands on clay during my practice time outside of class and after that on my own just doing it.

So check out Carbon Nation and the other links in this post and let me know what you think.  Maybe there is a new kind of kiln yet to be invented.

Much gratitude for all the free stuff and thanks for reading.